Mayoral frontrunners: Milton Kern

by Amy Kingsley

When the CEO of FedEx Express addressed a small clique of Greensboro business leaders on Oct. 23 during a corporate networking session, he briefly mistook Milton Kern for Mayor Keith Holliday.

“So you’re not the mayor now?” asked the CEO, David Bronczek.

“No,” Kern answered. “I’m running for mayor.”

The political direction of the conversation brought Bronczek to the subject of city politics in his hometown of Memphis, Tenn., where he belongs to an influential organization of local CEOs.

“When we tell the mayor we need more police, we contribute money so they can hire police officers,” Bronczek said.

“That’s a wonderful idea,” Kern said. “Here in Greensboro with the job losses we’ve had, we’ve had to rely on foundations.”

Minutes later as the group dissolved, Bronczek offered Kern some parting advice.

“Take all the great ideas I gave you and use them,” he said.

“That’s what I do,” Kern responded.

Later that night, at a forum at the Hayes-Taylor Memorial YMCA, Kern would indeed float the idea of creating a private loan fund for small businesses to augment the city’s program. Kern, a seasoned downtown developer and political newcomer, is intimately familiar with the obstacles facing small business owners. One success story he cited at the YMCA forum was Minj Grill, a restaurant he recruited to Elm Street and nurtured through its formative months.

Matt Hill, the owner of Minj Grill, had this to say about Kern: “He is not only a landlord, he is also an advisor. He is always asking me how I’m doing and how he can make things better.”

This is the Milton Kern who’s often referred to as “the mayor of downtown”: supportive, solicitous and personable. This Kern always offers to pour a fresh glass of water or fetch a cup of coffee for the people around him. And he’s unrepentantly humble.

“When you’re dealing with people of that level,” he said of Bronczek. “You really want to make an impression not that you are smart, but that you are eager to learn.”

Recently Kern has been learning about what it takes to graduate from being mayor of downtown to mayor of the entire city. What he’s discovering right now – after taking fire from local media – is that finding common ground with your opponent doesn’t play as well in politics as it does in business.

After the business summit, Kern held a press conference that was ostensibly about unveiling his vision for Greensboro. It was actually about introducing a new, more confrontational tone to his easygoing candidacy.

“I am still running for mayor and there is a clear difference between me and my opponent,” Kern said. “As mayor I would be an agent of change, but my opponent would be the status quo.”

Kern said he would appoint an independent panel headed by a former NC Supreme Court justice to investigate the legality of releasing information about the David Wray affair to the public. If elected, he said, he pledges to plant 10,000 canopy trees to replace those lost to development. Then he took the gloves off.

“The citizens deserve better than a police department mismanaged by my opponent,” Kern said, “and a Randleman Dam that does not yet have water flowing through. My opponent has not done the things she promised.”

Kern then shifted back to his core message.

“We need to be positive,” he said. “But sometimes we’ve got to throw a little negative in there to get the media’s attention. It’s like hitting a mule on the head.”

It’s a little late in the campaign game for Kern to be mastering the particulars of political speech. And he still struggles with the verbiage of inevitability bandied about by his more seasoned cohorts.

Kern is also flustered by the support Johnson gets from candidates in other council races.

“I don’t understand why Marikay [Abuzuaiter] wears a button for Yvonne Johnson,” Kern said, “but I don’t take it personally.”

He may not take it personally, but he does notice it. And Kern will say that he notices a lot of little things. Seated on a concrete bench outside city hall, he gestured to a dark stain along the opposite edge.

“That looks like a car tire rubbed up against that,” he said.

Kern frames a lot of issues from a contractor’s perspective. He notices details because he’s paid to notice them before the client does, he said. Kern said he wants to open up communication at city hall because it’s good business.

“Can you imagine if I was a contractor and didn’t talk to my clients?” he asked.

Kern slipped the gloves back on later that evening when he faced Johnson at the mayoral candidate forum. In response to a question about training workers, he agreed with all parts of Johnson’s response.

And Kern struck a conciliatory tone again in his closing statement when he gingerly broached the subject of race relations.

“It doesn’t really matter what color we are,” he said, pointing to his chest. “It’s what’s here that matters. My father was a Dutch Jew and my grandmother was Cherokee. So when I go around looking like some blond-haired, blue-eyed white boy, I’m not really.”

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